Jazz Out Loud

Par Kevin Gomis

Jazz is a musical style that originated at the beginning of the 20th century in black communities in the Southern United States. It was born out of a mix of African and European music traditions. Its African pedigree is evident in its use of blue notes, improvisation, polyrhythms, syncopation, and the swung note.

From its early development until the present day, jazz has also incorporated elements from American popular music.

As the music has developed and spread around the world it has drawn on many different national, regional, and local musical cultures giving rise, since its early 20th century American beginnings, to many distinctive styles: New Orleans jazz dating from the early 1910s; big band swing, Kansas City jazz, and Gypsy jazz from the 1930s and 1940s; bebop from the mid-1940s; and on down through West Coast jazz, cool jazz, avant-garde jazz, Afro-Cuban jazz, modal jazz, free jazz, Latin jazz in various forms, soul jazz, jazz fusion, and jazz rock, smooth jazz, jazz-funk, punk jazz, acid jazz, ethno jazz, jazz rap, cyber jazz, Indo jazz, M-Base, nu jazz, and other ways of playing the music.

In a 1988 interview, trombonist J. J. Johnson said, « Jazz is restless. It won’t stay put and it never will ».

Jazz spans a range of music from ragtime to the present day — a period of over 100 years — and has proved to be very difficult to define. Attempts have been made to define jazz from the perspective of other musical traditions — using the point of view of European music history or African music for example — but critic Joachim Berendt argues that its terms of reference and its definition should be broader. Berendt defines jazz as a « form of art music which originated in the United States through the confrontation of blacks with European music » and argues that it differs from European music in that jazz: has a « special relationship to time, defined as ‘swing' »; involves « a spontaneity and vitality of musical production in which improvisation plays a role »; and contains a « sonority and manner of phrasing which mirror the individuality of the performing jazz musician ».

Double bassist Reggie Workman, saxophone player Pharaoh Sanders, and drummer Idris Muhammad performing in 1978
A broader definition that encompasses all of the radically different eras of jazz has been proposed by Travis Jackson: he states that it is music that includes qualities such as swing, improvising, group interaction, developing an ‘individual voice’, and being open to different musical possibilities. An overview of the discussion on definitions is provided by Krin Gabbard, who argues that « jazz is a construct » that, while artificial, still is useful to designate « a number of musics with enough in common to be understood as part of a coherent tradition ».

In contrast to the efforts of commentators and enthusiasts of certain types of jazz, who have argued for narrower definitions that exclude other types, the musicians themselves are often reluctant to define the music they play. Duke Ellington summed up this perspective by saying, « It’s all music ».

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